Palomar Observatory


Location: Palomar Mountain (78 Miles / 1 Hour and 45 Minutes Northeast of Downtown San Diego)

Open Daily: Generally open 9AM – 4PM (Closed on December 24th and 25th)

Cost: None

Features: Home to One of the World’s Most Powerful Telescopes; Took Clearest Pictures Ever of Outer Space in 2007; Images Used in Google Sky; One of America’s Finest Scientific Achievements.

Palomar Observatory Highlights: Located in a remote mountain area of San Diego, the Palomar Observatory took the clearest pictures ever of outer space in 2007. A BBC article notes that these amazing photographs are twice as clear as the ones taken from the Hubble Space Telescope. Outer space photos taken from Palomar are also used in Google Earth’s popular feature called Google Sky. For anyone who has even a remote interest in stargazing, there is no better place than the Palomar Observatory.

Edwin Hubble (namesake of the world famous Hubble Telescope) took the first photograph from Palomar Observatory in 1949. Nearly 60 years later, the Palomar Observatory is still at the forefront of providing many of the most amazing pictures of outer space.

In the mid-1930’s, the glass company Corning designed a 200 inch mirror made out of a new material at the time called Pyrex. When the mirror was transported across the country from Corning’s New York facility, it attracted the nation’s attention with thousands of spectators crowding around the train tracks to see the mirror as it made its journey to Southern California. To this day, the mirror used for the 200 inch Hale Telescope is only equaled by one other telescope as being the largest single piece of glass used in astronomy. (Read more about the history of Palomar Observatory. You can get a much more in-depth look at one of science’s greatest lasting accomplishments in the book The Perfect Machine: Building the Palomar Telescope, which was the basis for a 2008 PBS Documentary called The Journey to Palomar – America’s First Journey into Space.)

What to Expect

It will take the better part of a day to visit the Palomar Observatory in its remote location. The drive will take between an hour or two from most urban areas. A part of the drive will take place on a windy road as you work your way up Palomar Mountain. However, in addition to seeing one of the world’s great telescopes, you can also enjoy Palomar Mountain State Park. There are many hiking trails that provide glimpses of the panoramic views over northern San Diego County, including the ocean on clear days. The park is full of evergreen trees and vegetation.

Visitor Center Exhibits -There are a number of exhibits in just one room explaining the history of Palomar Observatory, information about the telescopes, and findings made by the telescopes. Plan on spending a half hour to an hour in the visitor center reading displays, looking at photographs, and playing around with interactive exhibits. You can also visit their exhibits web page to take a look at fascinating photos of distant planets, video of exploding supernovas, and more. Definitely check out the photo of Uranus.

The Visitors Center also has a gift shop where astronomy buffs can buy books, video tapes, shirts, and other novelty items.

Hale Telescope – After leaving the Vistiors Center, you will have about a 250 yard walk up a slight incline to reach the Hale Telescope. Visitors will enter an observation hallway with tall glass windows giving you a close-up look at the Hale Telescope. (There are four other telescopes in the area, which are not opened to the public.) If you do not know much about telescopes, chances are there will be volunteers or other visitors who are astronomy buffs willing to shed some light on what you are looking at. You can also download a 10 minute self-guided audio tour of Palomar Observatory. You can also listen to it online before visiting. The audio tour starts at the Visitor’s Center before taking visitors over to the Hale Telescope.

Note, there is a set of stairs to reach the observation hallway. There are three set times during the day in which staff are available to assist visitors with accessibility challenges. Review the Palomar Observatory visitors page for the set times.

Tours & Stargazing – In addition to the audio tours mentioned above, there are few daytime tours available on Saturdays from April to October. There is a nominal fee for these tours. Tickets are sold first come, first served. You should check their web site if you would like to take a guided tour to make sure there are no unexpected cancellations.

For those looking for bus tours from The Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in San Diego to Palomar Observatory, that tour is no longer available.

You may also be interested in attending the ‘Explore the Stars’ program hosted by the Cleveland National Forest at their campground two miles from the Observatory.

(Read more about astronomy in San Diego County.)

The Brains behind the Palomar Observatory – Palomar Observatory is owned by the private California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Astronomers from all over the world gain access to the telescopes at Palomar Observatory through Caltech, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Oxford University, and Cornell University. When visiting Palomar Observatory, you will not see astronomers since they operate the telescopes at night.

Here is an aerial view of the Palomar Observatory and information about the Palomar telescopes. Learn more interesting facts about the Palomar Observatory from their page of Palomar Observatory FAQ’s. You can also see the Hale Telescope in action using a laser beam. It is a thirty second time-lapse video of a three hour session of the Hale Telescope using the newest technology called Adaptive Optics. Adaptive Optics is the technology which enabled the Hale Telescope to take the clearest pictures ever of outer space.

Food – Consider bringing a picnic to enjoy while on the grounds of the Palomar Observatory. You will come across a general store on Palomar Mountain where you can buy food and unique gifts. The Palomar Mountain General Store also provides a good road map of Palomar Mountain on their web site. The General Store is at the intersection of S-6 and S-7 just before you make your final climb to the observatory.

Information on Visiting the Palomar Observatory

Admission Prices:

  • Parking is Free
  • Entry is Free
  • There is a nominal charge for guided tours that take place on Saturdays between April and October.
  • Friends of Palomar Observatory membership provides behind the scenes access to special events.

Directions from Google Maps to 35899 Canfield Road in Palomar Mountain, CA 92060. (South Grade Road meets Canfield Road, which ends at the Palomar Observatory. Both are generally referred to as S-6.)

Warning – If Google Maps suggests taking a Truck Trail, don’t do it. Drag the blue line on the map from the Truck Trail portion to the intersection of SR-76 and Valley Center Road. This new route will lead you to the intersection of S-6 and S-7. Here you will find the Palomar Mountain General Store where you can take a break and get some food. To reach Palomar Observatory from here, you will head north on S-6 about 5 miles. (The front of the General Store will be on your left side as you head north on S-6.)

The Palomar Mountain General Store also provides a nice map of the attractions on Palomar Mountain. Be sure to enjoy the spectacular views on the drive up.

Traffic – When visiting the Palomar Observatory during daytime hours, you should not run into any traffic issues heading out of the urban San Diego areas. (Learn more about traffic in San Diego.) Prepare to drive slowly on the windy road as you work your way up to an elevation over 5,000 feet. Watch out for motorcyclists that enjoy speeding up the mountain, especially on weekends. Be sure to fill up with a full tank of gas before you get to Palomar Mountain.

If you hear there is snow in the San Diego Mountains (this only happens a couple times during the winter), you may be required to use snow chains on your tires. Check the current San Diego Mountains Weather Forecast.

Transit – Sorry, but you will not find public transportation to this remote location.

Find More Attractions with Similar Themes or Location: Astronomy & Outer Space, North County Inland, Palomar / Northern Mountains, Scenic Drives, Scenic Views |

One Response to “Palomar Observatory”

  1. I NEED INFO says:

    Can anyone tell me all the names of telescopes at Palomar Observatory. I know there is the Hale and schmidt Telescopes. Are there any more? Please answer as soon as posible.

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